Hotspot Consolidation Takes a Minor Step Forward

By Eric Griffith

March 04, 2005

UPDATED: SBC is boasting of major hotspot expansion by roaming with Airpath and Boingo -- a complicated deal that isn't always reciprocal for all involved, highlighting the issues in Wi-Fi roaming and coverage bragging rights.

At first glance, the news below would make one think we're a step closer to cellular-type roaming on hotspots, but the dealmaking between companies is far from straightforward. However, one vendor seems to be working hard at making things easier for carriers to negotiate roaming agreements.

Airpath Wireless, which provides Wi-Fi hotspot back-end services for companies, and Boingo Wireless, which is an aggregator of hotspots run by others, are the latest partners to become part of SBC's FreedomLink hotspot network.

The deals add Airpath's 3,300 hotspots—locations that are part of its Airpath Provider Alliance (APA)—and some 4,000 venues on the Boingo network to FreedomLink, giving it an approximate total of 13,700 hotspots (up from 6,400).

Note that some of these numbers include the number of sites the vendor has under contract to get service, not how many are actually usable today.

Subscribers to Boingo or to any APA company will be able roam on some FreedomLink hotspots— but not all of them. That's because SBC's FreedomLink network is a mix of venues it runs itself and locations run by partners such as Wayport. SBC is a customer of Wayport's Wi-Fi World program, which is putting wireless into McDonald's restaurants. That program is licensed separately from Wayport's other locations. SBC is only extending service into the McDonald's locations in the states where it has phone service, not all 50 states.

It also won't be cheap. SBC FreedomLink subscribers usually pay $19.95 a month, but it costs another $20 to roam on the other networks. It's cheaper if you have SBC DSL at home -- those customers currently have free access to the SBC-controlled "home" hotspots, and will only have to pay $1.99 after May 31. To roam, they'll need to to pay the full $39.95 for now, but discounts are coming, according to an SBC spokesperson.

While the Golden Arches are considered part of the "home" network for SBC (not roaming), they won't be available to Boingo users. Boingo is also a partner with Wayport—but Boingo has not bought into the Wi-Fi World program at this time. It would have to negotiate such access separately. Same for APA users.

Also, the fact that APA and Boingo are now partners with SBC doesn't mean they will have cross-roaming with each other—they won't. At least, not yet.

One interesting aspect of this comes courtesy of Airpath. The company soft-launched a program called InterRoam last year that allows carriers to negotiate with each other for access to each other's hotspots. The neutral platform lets large companies decide who and how and when to work together, then instantly link up to each other. APA is just another network on InterRoam.

Airpath CEO Todd Myers calls InterRoam "the aggregator's aggregator. This gives [networks] a one-stop shop for access to footprint."

Myers says the InterRoam network has carriers using it that total about 14,000 hotspots—all of which would be available to SBC. Carriers can pick and choose access as well—SBC could, for example, negotiate to get access to just the airport hotspot locations of one carrier, and just the café locations of another.

Airpath differentiates its APA customers as the small to mid-sized ISPs that want hotspots which Airpath can control, while InterRoam is for the larger carriers. "Larger want neutral; smaller don't have a choice," says Myers.

All this potential partnering aside, who's got the bragging rights to the biggest hotspot footprint today? Fuzzy math and trust issues reach their pinnacle when it comes to counting hotspots—especially with aggregators who don't run their own networks. Even subtracting for overlap in venues, SBC's new deals probably give it a lead for consumers, though corporate remote access provider iPass says it has 19,500. Last year iPass anounced monthly and yearly flat-rate prices for Wi-Fi connectivity in addition to per hour and per day rates. [Corrected on 3/4/05] Oh, and Boingo, which is also flat-rate priced, claims to have 16,000 locations after adding SBC locations... but that number includes locations under contract.

In January, Wayport announced it had reached 6,300 locations, all of which it operates itself. Before that, the known leader was T-Mobile Hotspot, due to its aggressive push to get service into over 4,000 locations, including Starbucks Coffee. T-Mobile has not kept pace with roaming, though; it doesn't let its subscribers roam on any other hotspot network.

When will all these groups work together seamlessly, letting laptop users roam like cell phone subscribers? Myers says it will have to happen, and feels the neutral-broker approach of InterRoam is the right way for them to do it. "All the network operators will have to interconnect with all the major clearinghouses," he says. "Our expertise is working with ISPs and carriers—we're pretty well positioned to get them all."



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